The rising cost of replacing the aging heating and ventilation system at Gorham Middle School has put school officials in a $450,000 fix.

Voters in November gave the school department the OK to borrow more than $2.26 million to update the geothermal heat pumps, but the two bids submitted for the project both came in “approximately $450,000” over the anticipated amount, Superintendent Heather Perry told the American Journal this week. The bids were within $10,000 of one another, she said.

“One heat pump failed as recently as two weeks ago. Each time one of the current pumps goes down, we basically cross our fingers that we can find a replacement,” Perry said.

The loss of one pump negatively impacts the entire HVAC system, she said, and the costs to replace an individual pump is high due to changing federal regulations.

The middle school, which opened in 2003, was the first Maine school to install a geothermal system. It has about 130 heat pumps, according to Norm Justice, facilities director.

With the geothermal system, fluid circulates through pipes drilled deep into the earth and absorbs heat. The heat pumps are the core of the HVAC system at the school, and it is an “extremely efficient” system, Justice said.¬† Of the district’s five schools, Perry said that the middle school follows only Great Falls Elementary, which also has a geothermal system, in heat efficiency.

“We are currently looking at what options we have and working with our engineers to figure out next steps,” School Committee Chairperson Darryl Wright told the Town Council last week.

School officials are working with engineers to determine whether there is a way to reduce the initial scope of the project and reduce costs while achieving the same goals. The School Committee then will decide whether to delay the project for a year hoping costs will go down or to move ahead with a smaller plan  and find alternatives to complete the project over time.

“Our hope is to complete the project to replace these heat pumps simultaneously at a reduced cost with equipment that is more up to date, more efficient to operate and less expensive to maintain,” Perry said.

Town Councilor James Hager, who as a former School Committee member chaired the middle school Building Committee, said this week that the warranty on the equipment is typically one year from start-up.

“I do know, we designed the system for a 20-year life, but seeing that the equipment is electrical (pumps running) and has fluids in pipes and tubes, it’s just like the water pump in your vehicle. You hope it lasts, but the odds are that it will fail in time,” Hager said. “It’s time to see how we can take advantage of the latest technology and the next generation of heat pumps.”

Hager said the geothermal system was chosen in the first place because the building was intended to be used year around as a community asset and to reduce overall energy consumption.

“I think we achieved both,” Hager said.

In March 2014, a heat pump caught fire. Smoke caused the evacuation of the building during a parent-teacher conference, but classes were not in session.

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